Beyond The Benches

Options After Junior And College Hockey

Guest Writer: Russ King is the President of Kingdom Player Management Inc. and a  NHLPA Certified Agent. He can be found on twitter @Kingdompm.

So after finishing four years in Major Junior or College Hockey, what’s next? You are an exceptional player but didn’t manage to get drafted to the National Hockey League either because you didn’t quite put up the numbers everyone thought you could or you didn’t get to that height and weight according to the people handling you. Perhaps you did but for some unknown reason you never did sign that three year entry level contract. Every player has a story of what they went through, I hope this helps when deciding where to play now and the options out there.

There is a story of an NHL player (not too long ago) who went un-noticed his whole career until he made a north western Ontario Jr B team.  Never drafted, four years later he was playing on an NHL fourth line and is still there today. That could be you.

If you came out of Major Junior and you have four years of schooling money to use … use it. After a player’s Junior years are done they have two years to start University. I always recommend to use your education money and go to a CIS school and get a good  education. Pro hockey will always be there, CIS hockey is very good. You will be playing against many of your former OHL teammates while at school. Don’t become the lifer in the minors who let his Junior education money expire. Don’t be the guy who wakes up at 30 and has to find a minimum wage dead end job. You still may light it up in your men’s league but that won’t pay the future bills. I know of a player who was drafted, won a world junior Gold a few years ago, was told by an NHL GM to come to camp with more muscle and he would be in the lineup opening day. He let it get to his head and partied all summer showing up over weight. He now lives paycheque to paycheque (in the bar) playing pro A hockey. Don’t become that guy.

If you want to keep going knowing that your Junior money is good for two years and you still feel you can play and want to give it one more shot. Here are your options.

There is still a chance you can make the “show”, or at least the American Hockey League (AHL). This time around you have to take a route that very few people explained to you while you we’re in the OHL or College. This route is via the AA pro leagues of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), Central Hockey League (CHL) and or the A pro leagues of the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) and the Federal Hockey League ( FHL) or the soon to be North Atlantic Professional Hockey League (NAPHL).

What are all the pro hockey leagues you ask, let me try to explain them.

The AHL (as any hockey person would know) is what would be considered the ultimate AAA pro league. Every team in the league has an NHL Affiliation and a lot of the players are on two way NHL contracts. This league is the primary development league for the NHL. The lucky few have won a Memorial Cup, the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup throughout their careers. As some would say the “Triple Crown” of sorts of North American hockey.

The ECHL is considered a AA pro league. There are 23 teams  accross the US on both coasts. They added a few teams from the west coast when the IHL ceased operations and last year a couple more left the CHL to join. This is why they dropped the full name of East Coast Hockey League and go by ECHL now. All teams have AHL/NHL affiliates except two, Las Vegas and Fort Wayne.  Some drafted OHL players end up there for part of their first year of pro or even for their overage year if there is no room on their NHL team’s AHL affiliate. Many un-drafted last year OHL players will either be invited to a main tryout camp or will attend an open camp for the next season. Others may join a team just before the playoffs after their OHL or NCAA season ends.

The CHL is the other AA pro league. It has lost teams in the past and now only has 10. Three of them have NHL/AHL affiliates. Up until last year there was an agreement through the PHPA (the association that the players belong to who bargain the collective agreements for the AHL, ECHL and CHL) that said a player can’t move from the CHL to the ECHL if they were under a CHL contract and vise versa. Last year that agreement was cancelled and there has been some movement between the two leagues. There are plans to add another team for next season.

The SPHL has become a very well run A Pro league based in the US south east and even has a link on the NHL site. It now has 10 teams and is a major development league for the both the ECHL and CHL. A former coach last year who is now coaching in The ECHL said to me “I believe there will be a day when an SPHL player makes it all the way up to the NHL, the development of the players is that good in that league”. Players have good housing and some teams pay for their food with their booster clubs doing the shopping every two weeks. Most players under contract receive many perks such as golf memberships and use of a gym and many restaurant deals. League attendance is very good. I myself attended a Saturday night game in Fayetteville a couple of years ago where 8,500 fans attended the game. Many pro coaches get their start in this league. Imagine playing pro hockey in Pensacola or Mississippi and living two blocks from the beach all winter. There are no AA pro team affiliations.

The FHL is the other A pro league that has four teams with three owners, they are located in the US north east. A few former OHL players get their start here like the ones that don’t do a full four years and drop down to Tier 2. It also has a few overage players who spent the most part of their careers in the minors but still want to play pro. The FHL doesn’t have an overage player rule like the SPHL does. Because of the location to many ECHL and CHL teams some players get a call up for a game or two. Under the PHPA collective agreement if the AA pro teams call up players they have to pay the travel costs there and back, a bus ride is cheaper than a plane ticket out of the south for a couple of games. Even though considered an A pro league many players leave and go to the SPHL for the warmer weather and shorter bus trips if nothing else. There are plans to add up to two more teams for next season. The league has had it’s ups and downs and will have to compete with the new NAPHL. The FHL put into affect a new rule this season that says if an FHL player leaves for the SPHL team they can’t come back. This prevents players from going back and forth during the season and is a rule that many players don’t like.

Riding the buses can be a tough time in the middle of winter. A good player can stick it out, put up some good numbers and then travel to Europe if they want. Pro hockey at any level can be rewarding while travelling to new places. All in all make sure you have something to fall back on when you decide it is time to hang them up. Good Luck